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Economic Empowerment of Refugees: Reflections from My Work Amongst Syrian Refugees in 2nd Country (Jordan) and 3rd Country (USA) Resettlement Efforts

Photo of Syrian Children filling drinking water in tanks in Al-Za'tari camp for Syrian refugees in Jordan.
As the topic of refugees circulates in the news and continued attention is placed on the more than five million Syrians who have been forced to flee their country since the start of the civil war, often the humanness of the individual actors involved is overlooked or forgotten. I have been privileged in the last four years to work alongside and befriend a number of these individuals.

From days spent just miles from the border with bombs echoing in the background to the far-removed idyll of Boise, Idaho, I have personally observed the resilience, dedication, and economic ingenuity that members of the refugee community embody. Today the question of whether or not we should permit Syrians into the country is at the forefront of national debate. Critics often argue that refugees pose an economic threat and this is a justifiable reason for barring their entry. In response, I invite you to listen to the stories of some of the women I have worked with. Come see the economic vitality they embody. Make your own decision about their level of contribution and whether they really represent a threat

Zataari Refugee Camp, Jordan (2nd Country Resettlement)

Yallah (let’s go),” Fadi says, pulling my arm as we trudge through mud and refuse up to our ankles. It is December 2013 and after months of asking, I finally received permission on my last day to accompany one of my best trainees to her UNHCR-issued container for coffee. This woman, a natural leader, will be largely responsible for continuing an economic empowerment project once I leave the camp. She also has eight children, a wounded husband, and a blind mother-in-law to support. Wind whips our scarves, skirts, and words as we make our way past dozens of tents. As the sun sets over roughly 150,000 refugees caught between the border of Syria and Jordan, I marvel at Fadi’s dedication to the project despite the conditions she must overcome each day.

In September of 2012 there were only 2,400 shelters in Zaatari; by the following April there were 25,378. Through the summer of 2013 an estimated 6,000 people a day arrived from Syria. By the end of the year the camp’s total inhabitants ranged from 140,000 to 170,000. It is by far the biggest Syrian camp and one of the largest refugee camps in the world. As a result, food scarcity, water shortages, insufficient educational opportunities, disease, lack of shelter, and the threat of human trafficking are all part of daily life.

When I was approached about starting an economic development project in the camp under the auspices of UN Women, I gladly agreed. People had been asking repeatedly for a chance to work; women were yearning for an opportunity to provide for their families. I spent the next three months setting up a beaded-scarf project which trained 20 Syrian war widows to generate an income for their families. Through unbelievable heat and then intense cold, people crowded each week into a UN Women’s Oasis container for hours to bead, design, stitch, and package. We exchanged stories and recounted memories. Their dignity, determination, and unceasing work ethic despite the horrors they had survived astounded me.

The misperception that people in camps are lazy, idle, and attempting to live off international aid money stands in stark contrast to the reality I experienced. Refugees want to work. Scalable projects like the beaded-scarf project I helped start have grown immensely. Zataari as a whole has become a thriving economy notwithstanding improbable odds: an examination by the UN in 2016 showed that the three thousand businesses inside the camp generate $13 million a month for the refugees and the Jordanians they do business with. The setting is far from perfect. Zaatari is basically a tent city, where the stench of human refuse, death, disease, and malnourishment often made beadwork training nauseating. The fact that people are building their lives amidst such difficult conditions exemplifies the incredible work ethic and human ingenuity of women like Fadi.

Boise, Idaho, USA (3rd Country Resettlement)

Ma’a salama (goodbye)” Najlaa says, pulling on her coat as she exits. It is October 2017, two months since I began training Najlaa as production assistant for a brand new ice cream shop in Boise, Idaho. She has just concluded a full day’s work churning seven different flavors and assisting with the development of two new recipes. As the doors begin to swing shut, the owner, standing nearby, surprises both of us with his flawless delivery of the traditional Arabic goodbye blessing in response. Her face lights up as the unexpected yet familiar sounds bounce off the kitchen walls.

Four years after my initial economic development work in Zataari, I accepted a production management job in Boise. I found myself once again hiring and training a Syrian refugee woman. Through hours of my broken Arabic, her limited English, and Google Translate, we converted dozens of recipes into Arabic, churned hundreds of gallons of ice cream, and participated in the Idaho Office for Refugee’s Treasure Valley Restaurant Week. In the midst of our current political climate, with Islamophobia widespread, many days I am struck by how alienated Najlaa must sometimes feel here. Yet somehow, despite the unfamiliar language and culture that surrounds her, she arrives every day willing to overcome any obstacle. She has become fundamental to our business’s success.

Since the 1970’s, Idaho is estimated to have resettled over 20,000 refugees, averaging between 1,000 and 1,1000 per year in the last five years. These people represent a diverse array of cultural, linguistic, and religious backgrounds. In the last two years 118 Syrians made Idaho home.

In my work in the Boise refugee community, I inevitably learn about the arguments both in favor of and opposed to the integration of Syrians in Boise. It is not easy. With budget cuts under the new administration, increased levels of public distrust in the vetting process, and our president’s anti-Islamic sentiments, these organizations collide with new limits to the assistance they can offer.

Job placement remains one of the most difficult parts of refugee resettlement. Along with the stereotypes of refugees living in camps, there is a widespread notion that allowing Syrians into our country is an economic threat. People hesitate to hire them, are nervous to work alongside them, and one strand of public opinion insists they are a burden to taxpayers. Yet the national bureau of economic research published a paper in June of 2017 which found that this is not the case. It estimated that the U.S. spends $15,000 in relocation costs and $92,000 in social programs over a refugee’s first 20 years in the country. In the same time period refugees pay nearly $130,000 in taxes — which means on net refugees generate $20,000 more than what they receive in aid.

Although refugees’ unemployment rates are initially higher and earnings lower than U.S.-born residents, after six years into a refugee’s resettlement in the US, they are more likely to be employed than native-born citizens of the same age. This trend continues throughout their lifetime, meaning that the longer a refugee lives in the U.S., the greater their economic output and the less he or she relies upon government assistance.

What it all means

Despite the dehumanizing rhetoric that critics often employ when arguing that refugees threaten U.S. economic safety and national security, the facts point to a much different conclusion. Women such as Fadi and Najlaa should be given a chance to live in environments where their creativity, audacity, and determination can contribute to the economic vitality of their community. Just as I was astounded four years ago by the work ethic and dedication of women in the camps, I am now humbled by the Boise refugee population’s resilience in the face of growing national hostility. It is my hope that we focus on the potential economic growth asylum seekers offer us, concentrate on our shared humanity, and not be distracted by voices of irrational fear.


Photo of Rahcel GallinaThe child of humanitarian aid workers in the aftermath of the Balkan wars, Elena is passionate about changing international responses to conflict. She has worked amongst Syrian refugees in Jordan, aided community development in Swaziland, and served social empowerment efforts in the Balkans, Israel, Palestine, and Boise. She is currently studying economics and Arab world studies at Boise State University.